A preacher on a prominent Christian television channel was waxing eloquent. She was describing the follies of the prodigal son in Luke 15. At the height of it, she said, “The prodigal son was stupid. Everybody say, ‘stupid!’”
And the audience said, “Stupid!”
For a few moments, I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.
I had seen many preachers on television treating their audiences like a kindergarten class. “Stand up,” “sit down,” “wave your hands,” “turn around,” “greet your neighbour,” … these commands have been around for some time. When the crowd obliges, the preacher or the worship leader feels powerful and in control.
Preachers and pastors have never found an easy way to mobilise their congregation for evangelism. That being the case, it may be necessary for leaders to know once in a while that their congregation is paying attention to what’s being said. But I’ve always been turned off by such gimmicks regardless of what educators say about the multi-sensory approach to learning. At the same time, I am aware that a whole lot of Pentecostals and Charismatics love to “respond” to such commands, if not to God’s commands that come through a sermon.
Another turn-off is the initial question posed by most pastors and worship leaders: “How many of us are happy today?” Well, is it a sin to feel unhappy? Or, is this a way of saying that the church is no place for the unhappy, the dejected, and the disappointed lot?
Many church-goers are saddened by life’s trials. As the service progresses, they may be able to overcome their sorrow and to rejoice in the Lord in spite of, or regardless of, their sorrows. By the end of the service, they may be able to say the Lord turned their sorrow into gladness. In fact, ministers should ensure their services are attuned to these realities. Charismatic emphasis on triumph and celebration has become blind to the reality of sorrow in many. Opening statements or questions such as “How many of us are happy today?” are non-inclusive and boring.
Congregations in India are getting weary of answering such questions and of waving their hands to cheer a leader who, lacking self-confidence, is dependent on positive-feedback from the crowd. Such insecurity makes preachers ask, “Won’t you shout an ‘amen’ to that?” Why should a church be coaxed into saying ‘amen’ or ‘Hallelujah?’ If someone thinks that a sermon is great, or if a point has been driven home, people may shout ‘amen’ voluntarily.
Pastors and congregations in India (and maybe, in other countries too) have been quick to mimic their Western counterparts. We catch the form of western religious services while we often reject many other good things. We acquire good instruments and sound amplification systems. Our halls are air-conditioned. Our women have bid goodbye to head-coverings while our men still are not bold enough to challenge their ‘head’ – the Lord Jesus – by wearing a hat whilst praying! We have smart ushers and neatly printed church newsletters. Our church halls have been redecorated to match the halls we see on television. Cordless microphones, LCD projectors, live internet broadcasting, and video recordings are in place. Sadly, we use LCD projectors just to project Bible verses or lyrics of songs. Our pastors, preachers, and teachers are yet to utilise the power of multimedia, presentations, and other visual aids to improve learning.
Yet, we have missed the core of what God has been doing in many Western churches where services are no more led by a few who sit in the front. Most of our church services are still led from the front by a ‘privileged’ few. We do not encourage the operation of spiritual gifts. Even if we do, we are satisfied with the speaking of unknown tongues and in some prophetic utterances. The rest of the supernatural gifts do not find a place on our catalogue. Priesthood of all believers, spiritual gifting of each Christian, corporate charismatic ministry, etc., remain as nice-sounding ideals on the brochures of a few churches.
If a new song should hit our churches, it should first be written, composed, sung, and recorded by someone in the West! We are patient enough to wait until then, even when our existing stock of ‘imported’ songs have gone ‘stale’ as a result of repeated use. Or, we wait until a top-rated Western song is translated into our language. Then we sing it awkwardly in a western tune! Why isn’t the singing of Indian songs (be it in any language) not considered as ‘praise and worship?’ I think an Indian song in an Indian language, composed in one of our ragas, is better suited for the expression of our devotion to God. Let’s grow up, Church!